The very same grassroots community of women who have been advocating for a public inquiry into the deaths and disappearances of women in the Downtown Eastside for over two decades are now denouncing the B.C. Missing Women's Commission of Inquiry as an insult to the women of this Vancouver community.
The Women's Equality and Security Coalition are calling for the inquiry to not proceed without significant changes to better include those most affected. The Downtown Eastside Women's Centre and Feb. 14th Women's Memorial March Committee rallied on Tuesday during the first day of the hearings, with over 200 women blocking traffic and calling for a "new fair, just, and inclusive inquiry that centres the voices and experiences and leadership of women, particularly Indigenous women, in the DTES."
"This inquiry has a responsibility to highlight those systemic injustices that allowed the unimaginable deaths and disappearances of so many women from the Downtown Eastside. We have been raising awareness on this issue for over 20 years and demanding an inquiry for decades, but this sham inquiry is flawed and unjust. We cannot endorse it," said Carol Martin, victim services worker at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre.
This morning, three sex-worker serving groups also pulled out of the faltering inquiry, placing the final nail in its coffin. In their letter to the commissioner today, WISH, Providing Alternatives Counselling & Education Society (PACE), and Sex Workers United Against Violence write: "We do have faith that no matter how hard counsel for the VPD, RCMP, Crown counsel and police unions try to protect their clients from the truth, the evidence will reveal many injustices... Despite our inability to participate in the inquiry process, we will continue to work tirelessly with women in the DTES who live and work in conditions of extreme violence and face ongoing barriers."
For decades, Indigenous women raised the alarm about missing and murdered women in the DTES and across the country. The Missing Women's Commission of Inquiry was established in 2010 to explore how police handled the investigation into the murders of over 30 women by Robert Pickton in the DTES. The establishment of the Inquiry was cited as a "substitute" for why B.C.'s attorney-general's office would not be conducting a full trial on the 20 outstanding charges against Pickton.
But a series of significant concerns were raised about fundamental flaws and structural injustices damaging the legitimacy, effectiveness, and credibility of the inquiry.
Just to list a few:
1) The inquiry is replicating the very same dismissive attitude and the same patterns of systemic marginalization that it is supposed to address. Attorney-General Shirley Bond and commission counsel have repeatedly stated that they are unconcerned with the inability of DTES, women's, and Indigenous groups to participate in the inquiry. The inquiry has shut out those very same voices that have been silenced by government institutions and that led to the tragedy in the first place. How can the commission possibly uncover the truth about systemic violence against women in the DTES without hearing from those women who actually experience it?
2) The "independent" commissioner of the inquiry is Wally Oppal, once a Liberal Party MLA and a former attorney-general of B.C., who did not even believe that an inquiry was necessary. Now he gets paid $1500 a day to preside over it. The terms of reference of the inquiry set by the commissioner were arbitrarily limited from 1997 to 2002, despite the fact that women went missing well before that date.
3) Simply stated, there is over protection of police officers. Officers and their unions have at least 14 publicly funded lawyers. These lawyers will subject any women who appear without legal counsel to rigorous cross-examination in an adversarial trial-like process. Three embedded police experts from the Peel Division are reviewing all the commission's legal documents, which the community has not even seen, and are advising the commission. Individual police officers are granted automatic participant standing in the inquiry while community groups had to go through a hearing process to be granted standing in the inquiry.
4) The actions of the police during the inquiry have been to protect sex offenders instead of vulnerable women. The VPD opposed an application for procedural protection of vulnerable witnesses, including the opportunity to testify through anonymous affidavits. The police have argued that evidence from vulnerable women should be able to be used against them in any potential criminal proceedings later on. The police are well aware that without anonymity and confidentiality, witnesses from the DTES will not testify. On the other hand, police want to protect sex offenders and have advocated for the names of sex offenders to be removed from the public record of documents.
5) The commission has attempted to remedy the structural imbalance in the inquiry by hiring two "independent" lawyers to represent the "DTES community" and "Aboriginal women." This move has been widely condemned by community groups and in an open letter by legal experts across Canada: "The appointment of independent counsel will result in further unfairness, and introduces a new form of discrimination." Parallel to the evidentiary hearings, the commission has also established a more "informal" study commission, which will essentially produce another toothless report and is absolutely not a replacement for a full and proper inquiry.
As articulated by Alex Neve, secretary general for Amnesty International Canada: "At its very heart this commission of inquiry is grappling with critical concerns about access to justice and human rights protection for some of the most marginalized communities in the province. But it is going forward in a manner that only adds to that longstanding sense of exclusion and discrimination."
Earlier this month, 20 organizations wrote a joint letter to B.C. Premier Christy Clark. "Our concerns are simple but fundamental: that those with information critical to the inquiry are assisted and supported so that their information can come before the commission; that the hearings, when held, provide a fair and safe opportunity for those with evidence to share their information and be heard; that groups granted standing have representation by legal counsel of their choice, just as the police do, so that they may probe and engage with the evidence that comes to light; and that, when the hearings are concluded, government will act in a constructive way in reforming policy based on the information collected."
The Assembly of First Nations, who have also withdrawn from the inquiry, wrote: "We hoped the inquiry would shed light to uncover truths that could help with the healing process for the families as well as to begin to point the way forward so that all women and the most vulnerable have access to justice. Without equity and balance, systemic issues will not be brought forward and will therefore not be reflected in the recommendations of the inquiry."
Given the failures of this inquiry, the Native Women's Association of Canada has called on three United Nations Special Rapporteurs to make an urgent joint appeal to Canada regarding the inquiry. The Downtown Eastside Women's Centre and the Feb. 14th Women's Memorial March Committee have also submitted a complaint to the Committee for the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and are urging the UN to make a country visit to Canada and to conduct their own unbiased inquiry into the systemic issues that have led to the tragedy of missing and murdered women.
Indigenous feminist scholar Andrea Smith has recently written that "Native feminisms must be oriented less toward questions of representation and more toward questions that interrogate the material conditions that Native women face as subjects situated within a nexus of patriarchy, colonialism, and white supremacy."
Indeed, women surviving in the Downtown Eastside are products of an unflinching political system that creates cuts in public programs while prioritizing corporate bailouts; a fundamentalist capitalist system that places basic necessities such as shelter onto the market; a colonial system that has forced assimilation onto Indigenous people; and a patriarchal social system where families are predominantly headed by single mothers and where Indigenous women are five times more likely to die as a result of violence that non-native women.
It is more comfortable to dehumanize and judge women living in the DTES, to rob them of their basic dignity, to tell ourselves that the violence of poverty and abuse is their fault because "they are all hookers and lazy addicts." The reality is that the DTES, the poorest postal code in Canada, is becoming home to an increasing number of women due to societal dynamics of inequality and oppressive government policies that allow for such inhumane realities to persist. Abdicating our responsibility to transform these injustices does not make them disappear or absolve us of our obligations to humanity. Hopefully one day soon we will learn how to affirm the sacredness of all life before another one is lost. RIP Verna Simmard, Lisa Arlene Francis, Ashley Machiskinic.
Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. You can find her on Twitter.